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Major General Quincy Gillmore could be forgiven for feeling overly confident as he planned his army’s assault on Charleston, S.C., in July 1863. A little more than a year earlier, Gillmore had gained acclaim for leading the Federals’ swift and relatively bloodless capture of Fort Pulaski, the brick-walled Rebel bastion commanding the waters around Savannah, Ga. As Federal efforts to take Charleston intensified in June 1863, leaders in Washington had no qualms appointing Gillmore to replace unpopular Maj. Gen. David Hunter as commander of the Department of the South. Gillmore, 38, assumed the smooth success he had enjoyed at Fort Pulaski could be replicated at Charleston. He and the Federals were in for a humbling surprise.

Although Gillmore, like Hunter, wasn’t too popular with his men, his skills as an engineer and siege artillerist had earned him great regard among his peers. Charleston, birthplace of the rebellion, was a choice destination for any Union commander. For the opportunistic general from Black River, Ohio, it was the crown jewel.

Defending Charleston were 6,000 troops under legendary Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard as well as more than 40 batteries and forts. In addition, the marshy islands that surrounded the city and its harbor were covered by stretches of swampland that made it difficult for the Federals to base troops or artillery. The biggest obstacle, though, was Fort Sumter in the middle of the harbor. If Sumter and its guns could be eliminated, Rear Adm. John Dahlgren’s fleet could steam in and threaten the city directly.

As at Fort Pulaski, Gillmore made sure his efforts were coordinated with the Navy. He knew he first had to gain control of 4-mile-long Morris Island, defended by formidable Fort Wagner and Battery Gregg. Wagner had originally been erected as a battery but was a fully enclosed fort by the summer of 1863—with sand and earthen parapets sloping 30 feet into the air, and a water-filled moat 10 feet wide and 5 feet deep.

A 1,700-man garrison manning 14 cannons, including a 10-inch Columbiad armed with 128-pound shells, lay within. Buried across the beach were a series of land mines and sharp palmetto stakes capable of impaling any soldier unfortunate enough to step on them. Worse, the ground in front of the moat tightened to about 100 yards between swamps to the west and the Atlantic Ocean to the east, so that any large body of attacking troops would be funneled into a tangled mess—creating a compact killing zone for the fort’s defenders.

Early on July 10, Brig. Gen. George C. Strong’s brigade made a surprise landing on the southern tip of Morris Island and overwhelmed the Confederate defenders there. Strong quickly moved north, capturing 150 prisoners, 12 guns and five flags. He might well have also overrun Wagner amid the chaos had Gillmore not held him back. The Federals renewed the assault the next day, but the Rebels, given time to prepare, stopped Strong with bloody losses. The First Battle of Fort Wagner ended with 330 Union casualties and only 12 Confederate.

Despite his renown with artillery, Gillmore did not rely on his big guns during the assault—but he made sure to on his second attempt a week later. At 8:15 a.m. on the July 18, Federal land batteries began bombarding the fort, quickly joined by Dahlgren’s ships. The combined firepower caused considerable damage but few casualties, even when the rising tide allowed USS New Ironsides and five other monitors to steam within 300 yards of the fort and unleash a fearful barrage. One blast knocked down the garrison’s flag, though it was quickly replaced.

The cannonade, one of the heaviest of the war, lasted 11 hours. Gillmore was confident an attack by land now would be too much for the Rebels. To lead the way, he and Strong turned not to their veterans but to a regiment of African-American soldiers who had received their baptism of fire only a few days earlier: the 54th Massachusetts. Gillmore favored using black soldiers in combat, and Strong’s decision to have those men lead an attack on the cradle of the Confederacy offered a moment steeped in irony.

But Wagner’s defenders had not been broken. In fact, they spent most of the cannonade under the fort’s bombproof shelter and quickly manned the ramparts when the artillery fire stopped and the men of the 54th began their grim march along the beach. When the regiment was about 150 yards from the fort, where the beach narrowed, the Rebels started firing. But even as comrades fell wounded and dead by the score, the 54th surged forward through the moat and up the fort’s slopes. Leading the onslaught with a wave of his sword was the regiment’s white colonel, 25-year-old Robert Gould Shaw, son of wealthy Boston abolitionists. As Shaw reached the parapets, he was killed by three point-blank shots.

At times the fighting broke into brutal hand-to-hand combat. Confederates acknowledged later that they were both infuriated and motivated by the presence of the black soldiers. Ultimately the 54th was forced to retreat, shattered but proud. The 6th Connecticut, 48th New York, 3rd New Hampshire, 76th Pennsylvania Zouaves and 9th Maine followed the 54th into the maelstrom and met a similar fate.

A follow-up attack by Col. Haldinand Putnam’s brigade also failed. The 100th New York, in fact, wounded and killed several fellow Federals by firing blindly into the darkness near the fort. The 7th New Hampshire lost 77 men killed, including 11 officers. Putnam had his head blown open.

Gillmore wisely decided not to try another direct assault on the fort, resorting to a prolonged siege. The shelling reduced Sumter to rubble, but it wouldn’t surrender. Wagner and Gregg were finally abandoned on September 6. Charleston itself somehow held out until February 1865.


Chris Howland is a senior editor for America’s Civil War.

Originally published in the November 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.